Since 2010, on the initiative of the UN General Assembly, the World Interfaith Harmony Week between all religions, faiths and beliefs has been held annually in February. For many countries, the issue of inter-religious consent is extremely painful and requires significant State involvement. Nonetheless, for Belarus, a stable ethno-confessional world is a reality, which is one of the main reasons for pride in our country.
A special feature of the Belarusian nation development has been constant presence of representatives of other cultures. Historically, Belarusians used to live in a multi-confessional environment which has resulted in absence of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts on the territory of the republic, – the most significant indicator of the sustainable consolidation of Belarusian society. The country demonstrates a high tolerance towards representatives of other religious groups. The existence of the developed national regulations guarantees to all citizens the exercise of their confessional right. Social survey findings show that most of the population (70%) does not fear bullying due to religious beliefs (survey was held in November-December 2020 by the by the Social and Humanitarian Research Centre of the Belarus State Economic University).
Sociologists note that the collective image of a "typical Belarusian" comprises the following qualities: friendliness, responsiveness, domesticity, hospitality and kindness. This characteristics allows to compare the Belarusian identity with the image of "home" – hospitable and open to friends regardless of their religion or nationality.
The year 2021 has updated the issue of strengthening social harmony in the country, which in fact is one of the most critical conditions for its very existence. Inter-faith peace is our national brand, the base of which has been laid for centuries and was developed thanks to effective confessional policy of the Belarusian state. The country has built a configuration of state-confessional relations that does not accept discrimination or discord.
Belarus has always consistently opposed all kinds of exclusivity concepts. The modern inter-faith relations in the country are characterized by stability. This is evidenced by the social survey findings: the absolute majority of the population (92%) believes that inter-confessional relations in the republic are of a peaceful nature.
The modern confessional structure of Belarusian society is stable and has not undergone substantial change over the past years. At the same time, the country has a diverse religious palette represented by more than twenty confessions and beliefs. These include Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities. On November 11, 2016, the Cathedral Mosque in Minsk was officially opened with the participation of the President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and Turkey President Recep Erdogan to become a place of prayer for Muslim residents and guests of the Belarusian capital.
With such religious diversity, the main principle of the Belarusian state confessional policy is to follow the principle of equality of religions before the law taking into account the determining role of traditional confessions in the historical formation and development of the spiritual, cultural and state traditions of the Belarusian people. While remaining within secularism, the state provides supports for religion – for instance, religious organizations enjoy a number of benefits: they are exempt from paying property taxes and land taxes, the state assists in restoring temples and places of worship, etc.
Despite the fact that the majority of the world's population remains religious, secularization processes are becoming the case almost all over the world, expressed in a decreased religiosity of the population, primarily young people. For example, Belarus recently (2012-2018) experienced a decline in the number of citizens calling themselves believers. In parallel, over the same period, the share of responses on the ambiguous attitude to faith has increased, thus indicating both an increase in the indifference of the population towards religion, and the spiritual search of many people.
Sociological monitoring consistently records the fact that the number of respondents belonging to a particular religious organization is significantly higher than those considering themselves believers. To a certain extent, this is due to the fact that for some Belarusians, the confessional choice is not a manifestation of religiosity, but a factor of the continuity of generations, a tradition ("nominal Orthodoxy"). The high level of declared religiosity does not relate to the corresponding institutionalization of faith: the share of "active believers" who regularly perform religious practices and clearly know their faith basics, remains insignificant. It should also be considered that the religious awareness of today's Belarusians is of high syncretism.
At the same time, the regional specificities are the case. Thus, the residents of Hrodna and Brest to a larger extent speak about their faith in God, highly appreciates the role of religion in their lives and confide in religious institutions. Minsk, which, like any metropolis, is characterized by a high level of cultural and confessional diversity, is the region of the republic relatively less inchurched and more indifferent and critical of religion and the church.
Despite the above trends, the significance of the religious factor in public practice and social communication in general remains high. According to a survey conducted by the Social and Humanitarian Research Centre of the Belarus State Economic University, the value of religion is important for the majority of Belarusians (55%) (not important for a third). Therefore, it can be argued that religion is an essential part of the spiritual culture and social orientation of our people, symbolizes tradition and continuity, and plays an important role in the lives of many Belarusians irrespective of their affiliation.
Christianity takes a special place in the confessional structure and spiritual heritage of Belarus. Traditionally, sociological studies have recorded a high level of trust in church – one of the most authoritative social institutions, along with the army. Throughout their history, Christian churches have accumulated great experience working with the most vulnerable segments of the population and have a significant volunteering potential, assisting the state in ensuring the moral and psychological well-being of society and solving a number of social challenges (helping socially vulnerable groups of the population, resocialization of persons deprived of liberty, etc.).
The role of religious organizations is also significant in preventing the generational divide, which have been mentioned frequently by experts in recent days. In this regard, the significant values offered by traditional religious confessions, such as hard work, mercy, tolerance, strong family, children's respect for their parents, love for their people, their traditions, respect for the memory of their ancestors, have a high potential in the field of spiritual and moral and civil-patriotic education of young people. Various confessions, due to their own strategic interests, try to show their activity in the youth environment. At the same time, the secular education should remain a consistent principle of traditional faiths participation in formation of the young generation of Belarusians.
Religion today is becoming an additional resource of struggle in the current political situation both in domestic the foreign policies (a "soft power" instrument of the state). What should the church and clergy do in such a complex situation? In such environment, the most critical task for religious leaders is not to be affected by a more "lower" order, in the opinion of the church itself, and remain the mainstay of spirituality in society, an authoritative moral beacon for citizens, not subject to momentary political fluctuations. Such a balanced and wise position of the clergy will facilitate the stabilization of the situation and pacification of society as a whole.
All religious systems and traditions is based on the recognition that to live in a sustainable world requires mutual support. This is not accidental since peace is not only the greatest social, but also a religious value (based on sociological studies, this value is important for almost one hundred percent of respondents). Religious leaders inevitably play a crucial role in peace-building efforts, especially in times of political turbulence. In August 2020, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslav Pavel, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus blessed all churches and monasteries of the Belarusian Orthodox Church to offer prayers for the gift of peace to our land.
The most important resource of religion is forgiveness, with the help of which it is possible to maintain stability in society. Last December, the leaders of the four major faiths (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam) signed a joint appeal for peace to the people of Belarus. In particular, the text emphasized, "...we turn our word of love with feelings to every compatriot and call for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation; we call for forgetting grievances and continuing to build our common home, again and together".
The modern Belarusian society is actively developing cooperation between the state and traditional religious confessions, and implementing joint social and cultural activities. At the same time, religious organizations posses significant reserves for greater inclusion in the life of society, improving the moral state of its citizens. In the face of common threats (pandemic, economic crisis, political turbulence) the interaction between the state and religious institutions is necessary. Joint humanitarian and educational work (especially among young people), establishing contacts through public and religious diplomacy would be effective and contribute to the consolidation of Belarusian society.
The above-mentioned theses were translated at the round table "Interfaith Harmony as the Most Important Factor in Strengthening Public Peace and Stability" held on February 26, 2021 in Minsk. Alike initiatives, along with related conferences and seminars, are able to find new formats for discussing current social issues and common ground between state authorities and leading religious confessions. All this will contribute to the moral recuperation of society and the internal stability of the state.